When a lake is your home, Tonlé Sap

There is water and vegetation everywhere the eye can see. The boat moves further and further into the heart of Tonlé Sap Lake towards the floating villages carrying with it our curiosity for life on water and flashbacks of the troubled Vietnamese and Cambodian history.

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Tonlé Sap lake is definitely special; it is not only the largest fresh water in South East Asia with a flow changing its direction twice a year but is also home to many ethnic Vietnamese and Cham communities living in floating villages around the lake. More than 3 million people live around the bank of the lake 90% of which earn their living through fish catching and agriculture. Cambodia, Tonle Sap

The village we are in is home to 1,280 people most of which live under the poverty limit. The floating houses are small usually with one or two rooms. Three rooms are an exception. Bamboo pillars support the floating houses and make it easy for the house to be moved from one area to another during the rainy season.

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

There is a sense of community in the floating villages. You can find the usual Asian floating markets with boats going from one house to the other carrying all types of supplies for the people in the floating houses, small floating shops, floating Catholic church, floating school and some bigger platforms with serving tables and snacks for the tourists. Although some floating houses are connected to electricity most of them have no electricity and use power batteries. You can even find floating platforms to charge batteries.

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

People on the lake usually don’t pay taxes and eat what they can catch or grow. Crocodile and fish industry is developing as the people raise them around the floating houses to make money to survive. Tourist scams are also a way of making money.

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

The water in the lake is used for drinking and cooking as well as for washing or sewage. Bottled water is a luxury.

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Life expectancy on the lake is short; 54 years or so. There is no doctor in the floating villages and only very limite medical care. Child birth is high but more than 12% of the children die before the age of 5 and many of them drown afterwards on their way to school when their small row boats capsize.

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Moving to the city is hard if not close to impossible since this people lack money or even citizenship to allow them to be properly integrated into society. Most of the people in the floating villages are stateless Vietnamese with no papers to account for their names or their origins. Targets of mass genocide during the Khmer Republic and Khmer Rouge governments like so many other Cambodian people, expelled from the country in the 1970s just to later return to a home that no longer had room for them, the story of the people around the Tonlé Sap Lake is not an easy one.

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Sitting on the terrace of one of the floating houses tasting for the first time snake soup two small boys approach us to show off with their plastic toy guns. Innocent, playful and full of life just like the kids back home. Just that these ones live on small boat houses, learn how to row a boat before learning how to write, have no drinkable water or medical care, have crocodiles as house pets and are destined to live a nomad life floating on water.

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

As our boat takes us into the sunset to Siem Reap leaving behind the floating villages we carry with us the small happy faces of the two little boys. We repeat in our minds that less is more, we dream of better times for these kids and pray for the lake to keep them safe and their inner happiness to provide shelter in the darkest of the storms.

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

More picture from Cambodia on our Facebook page.

More on the history of the Vietnamese Cambodian people in this touching article Hope Floats.

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cambodia, Tonle Sap

Cu Chi Tunnels, South Vietnam

You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win”. This is what Ho Chi Minh was saying to the French in the late 1940s.

It was our first day in Ho Chi Minh City (better known to us as Saigon) and we were off to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were located some 65 km away from Ho Chi Minh City and their construction started somewhere in the late 1940s during the war against the French. The tunnels were dug by hand or with rudimentary tools and were gradually expanded by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong troops (supporters of the communists in South Vietnam) in the early 1960s as the United States increased their presence in Vietnam. It is said that the tunnels had around 250 km running from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian border.

IMG-20130921-00486_collageThe tunnels were divided in 3 levels going up to 12 meters in the underground. Some complexes had even four different levels with secret trapdoors separating them. The different levels held headquarters, kitchens, storage areas, living areas, hospitals, meeting rooms, rooms for making weapons or traps.

Hospitals were actually small spaces (the size of half a room in a flat) were wounds were treated superficially due to the lack of medicines and proper operating areas. In the sleeping areas people were usually sleeping in hammocks to avoid the humid and warm soil and the vibrations from the continuous bombing. In the kitchens meat and vegetables were cooked; most often, due to the lack of food, people in the tunnels were eating tapioca (sweet potato) which was nourishing and easy to cook. The air in the kitchen was taken out through special air tunnels meters away from the actual kitchen in order to lead the enemy away from the actual tunnel entrances.

IMG-20130921-00509_collageAn old Vietnamese adage says: “When the enemy is at the gate, the woman goes out fighting”. We learn from our guide that women were of crucial importance to the war. In the tunnels women were mainly in charge with cooking, preparing the maps of the tunnels and guiding the fighters. Outside the tunnels they were fighting alongside men. During the war women learned to fire weapons, lay traps, serve as village patrol guards and intelligence agents, recruit people or keep the supply lines flowing.

IMG-20130921-00514_collageWhile visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels we got to go through the small entrance doors of the tunnels (spider wholes), squeezed through 20 meters of dark, humid and warm tunnel, visited hospital rooms, meetings rooms, eating areas, were presented with all kinds of traps and fired guns with live ammunition in the firing area; all this with a sound of automatic guns and bombs around.

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The tunnels that are part of the visit were enlarged to fit the tourist; the initially tunnels and entrance doors were smaller since the Vietnamese people could easily fit whilst the enemy could get stuck. Tunnels were so small that they only went one way; once you were in the tunnel you couldn’t go back just straight up to the next door or level.

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The Cu Chi tunnels did not go unnoticed by the United States. Several major campaigns were launched to search out and destroy the tunnel system of the Viet Cong including dropping bombs, flushing the entrance of the tunnels with gas, water or hot tar, tossing grenades down the holes to crimp the opening, training the so called Tunnel Rats to enter the tunnels and fight inside. Towards the end of the war the tunnels were so heavily bombed that became hard to use. But by that time they have served their purpose – that of protecting the North Vietnamese units and allowing them more time to fight, prolonging the war and increasing the American costs and casualties until their withdrawal towards 1975. It is said that around 45,000 people died defending the tunnels.

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As we are driving away from Cu Chi tunnels I can’t stop thinking of those times of war that we had a glimpse of and the strength a person has to have to fight a war, to protect his/her family, to survive while leaving underground for weeks or months at a time of non-stop bombing and countless deaths of close ones. Maybe it all comes down to what you believe you can do and how long you can keep the hope alive. Ho Chi Minh warned that if the Americans “want to make war for twenty years then we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea”. Incidentally, the Vietnam War lasted for 19 years, 5 months, 4 weeks and 1 day.

You can read more technicalities about the Cu Chi Tunnels here http://web.mst.edu/~rogersda/umrcourses/ge342/Cu%20Chi%20Tunnels-revised.pdf

You can find here our Tips & Tricks.

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Tips & Tricks Cu Chi Tunnels

When visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels keep in mind some tips from our own experiences. As always, feel free to jump in and add any advice to the below:

  • wear clothes and shoes that are appropriate for walking on soil and knelling through the tunnels;
  • before going inside the spider wholes estimate whether you can actually fit and be prepared to use some strength to push yourself up when is time to go out;
  • if you have difficulties with closed or dark places skip the spider wholes and the tunnel walk; tunnels are dark, narrow, not that high and warm;
  • choose carefully the length you want to visit in the tunnels; we went inside the tunnels for about 20 meters and exited (there are exits along the tunnel); the part we did was narrow but you only had to kneel to be able to walk through the tunnel; other parts of the tunnel require you to actually crawl in order to be able to advance and there is no turning back once you entered the tunnel;
  • although we couldn’t say we would try this again, consider trying the firing area for the experience; it was our first time firing a gun and we tried the M-16; the firing area is noisy (even with the protective earphones), no explanations are provided just a man putting it’s hand behind your shoulder and screaming “fire”; it’s all done in less than 30 seconds but the experience it’s sure to stick with you forever;
  • try the tapioca (sweet potato); we loved it.